By SAAV Volunteer Laura Perry
The former student charged with killing 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida wrote on social media that “toads tended to run away when they saw him” because he had “killed a lot of them.” An anonymous caller to the F.B.I. warning about the threat he posed specifically mentioned the “photos of sliced up animals” the perpetrator posted. Neighbors remember “watching him try his best to use a pellet gun to kill a squirrel,” “shooting at chickens,” and wielding a stick as a weapon towards rabbit burrows, “trying to ram it down as hard as he could to kill any bunnies inside.” Several neighbors also remember him encouraging his dogs to attack a neighbor’s pet potbelly pigs.
A 2013 study by Professors Eric Madfis and Arnold Arluke examined 23 perpetrators of school shootings from 1988 to 2012 and found that 43% of the perpetrators had engaged in acts of animal cruelty before the shootings. The perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine school shooting boasted about mutilating animals. The perpetrator of the 2017 shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas reportedly purchased dogs off Craigslist to use for target practice and was also criminally charged for beating a dog. Animal cruelty is a red flag that must be taken seriously. As Arluke writes, because of documented histories of animal cruelty in mass shooters, it should be seen as “one marker among many of a disturbed individual who may be more likely to commit a mass shooting in the future.”
A history of domestic violence is also common among those who commit a mass shooting, leading many to argue that we need to “examine the patterns of violence” that are driving these tragic incidents. The perpetrator of the Parkland school shooting allegedly behaved abusively towards an ex-girlfriend and was expelled for fighting with that ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. The perpetrator of the Sutherland Springs mass shooting served time for assaulting his wife and stepson. The perpetrator of the Pulse Nightclub shooting reportedly had a history of domestic abuse. One recent study found that perpetrators of domestic violence accounted for 54% of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016. According to the FBI, at least 57% of the mass shootings (involving more than four victims) between January 2009 and June 2014 involved a perpetrator killing an intimate partner or other family member.
Guns are also a tool chosen by batterers to inflict domestic abuse. Research confirms that firearms are used all too often to intimidate, coerce, threaten, injure, and kill victims of domestic violence. One 2004 study found that “firearms, especially handguns, are more common in the homes of battered women than in households in the general population.” Researchers conclude by arguing that in order to create better and more responsive public policies, the views of the survivors of domestic violence should be “more fully taken into account.”
Violence should be taken seriously whether perpetrated against an animal or a human. On January 1, 2016, the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) began collecting detailed data from participating law enforcement agencies on acts of animal cruelty, including gross neglect, torture, organized abuse, and sexual abuse. Many groups advocated for the need to collect data about animal cruelty along with other incidents that the NIBRS currently tracks like domestic violence. “If somebody is harming an animal, there is a good chance they also are hurting a human,” explained John Thompson, deputy executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association. “If we see patterns of animal abuse, the odds are that something else is going on.”
How can we break this cycle of violence? Those most closely affected by school shootings emphasize helping students and other young people get the help they need, as part of their advocating for gun control legislation and mental health resources. In a recent listening session at the White House, parents of children killed during the Sandy Hook school shooting advocated for “prevention programs that train schools and educators to identify students in crisis and intervene before they attempt to harm themselves or others,” like those provided by the Sandy Hook Promise organization that teach young people to “recognize warning signs and signals, especially within social media” and to tell adults if they are concerned.
SAAV’s mission is to break the cycle of violence. One crucial way to do so is to foster empathy and compassion toward animals. SAAV encourages leading by compassionate example and sharing stories about the importance of kindness to animals within your community, particularly with children and teenagers. When a child or teenager (or anyone) is abusing an animal, it is a red flag that must be taken seriously. SAAV also encourages aggressive reporting by the public to law enforcement whenever someone witnesses animal cruelty or domestic violence. “Violence does not happen in a vacuum,” notes SAAV Co-Founder and President, Megan Senatori, “it is all about the exercise of power and control. Early intervention by law enforcement is critical. Regardless of whether the victim is a person or animal, or the act happens in public or behind closed doors, as a community we must stop perpetrators in their tracks, because research increasingly confirms that violence against one of us hurts all of us.”